Monday, July 15, 2019

Modern Day McClellans

The vacillating spirit of McClellan is alive today in the Democratic Party's leadership

Like a lot of American boys who get into history at a young age, I immersed myself heavily in the Civil War as a child. Once I was older and became a professional historian I distanced myself from the topic, which I thought of as being overrun by hobbyists and "buffs" who were overly invested in arcane minutiae. In the past few years, however, I have found myself obsessed again, but this time with the political and social histories of the war (as well as with Reconstruction.) 

I keep finding echoes of those histories in the present day. The biggest I see is with how both leaders and common people in the North radically reframed their understanding of the war as it went along. Lincoln's first inaugural speech, coming hot on the heels of secession, promised the South that he would not interfere with slavery where it currently existed. His second inaugural, coming as victory in the war was in sight, deemed slavery a moral evil and the Civil War as God's punishment on a guilty nation. 

I see a parallel in the ways that those Americans opposed to Trump, who is a political descendant of the Confederacy, are fighting him. Some understand that this is a fight where the enemy is simply not going to give up or play fair. They also know that the only forward is not getting back to the way it used to be, but to have, in the words of Lincoln at Gettysburg, a "new birth of freedom." Politicians like Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, and others seem to get this.

On the other hand, there are plenty of modern day McClellans. George McClellan was able to organize the Army of the Potomac into a disciplined fighting force, but was unwilling to actually USE that force. He was also contemptuous of the notion that the war was about anything other than restoring the Union, and when he ran for president in 1864 that included the willingness to allow the South back into the Union without the elimination of slavery. 

The parallels are not absolute, but I see a lot of McClellan in Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and other Democratic Party leaders. Their current strategy is simply to wait Trump out. Like McClellan refusing to advance in the Peninsula Campaign when he had the advantage, they think by not fighting they will somehow win, and that fighting is too much of a risk. So they sit on their hands, and refuse to impeach a president who only responds with more violations of the Constitution. They attack the left wing of their own party, fearing that they will alienate a few retired white auto workers in Ohio while ignoring the masses of people of color, and youth of all races who support their policies but often feel alienated from the party. 

The Union army finally emerged victorious under the leadership of Grant, who understood that winning was going to require more sacrifice and more fighting. It meant fighting a different kind of war, one whose intensity matched what the situation demanded. When his methods came under criticism, Lincoln defended him, declaring that "he fights." Grant himself understood that the Union's fearful, defensive posture needed to stop. He famously told his generals soon after taking command that they needed to stop worrying about what Robert E Lee was going to do to them, but what THEY were going to do to Robert E Lee. 

That's something that the Democratic leadership could learn from. The Republican caucus is full of members like Gohmert and Gaetz who are FAR more outside of the political mainstream than folks like Ocasio-Cortez. Expanded health care, legal abortion, gun control, subsidized child care, and debt relief are all popular positions. Democrats need to run proudly on these positions and take the fight to the other side. If the current leadership does not understand that reality, they need to get out of the way.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Now Is The Time To Act

I am writing this at a nice coffee house in the small college town of Canyon, located in the Texas Panhandle. I am here to visit a dear friend, and later we will be driving up to Colorado for a reunion of our grad school circle. I am very excited about this, but also feeling overwhelmingly fear and sadness.

The president is expected to announce that he will add a citizenship question to the census, in direct defiance of the Supreme Court. Not only is the president declaring himself above the law, he is doing so in order to intimidate a large portions of the country to avoid the census, thus undercounting areas that oppose him so their representation in Congress can be reduced. There are also raids imminent on thousands of immigrant families. The president has also invited right wing internet trolls who spread hate to the White House.

All of this is happening on top of children being put in cages and separated from their families.

And what has the opposition party done? Jack shit, that's what they've done. I do not chalk it up to incompetence or fear, but rather that Pelosi and her ilk simply have no clue what to do. We are in uncharted territory here.

It would be easy to blame people like her, but what are the rest of us doing? Complaining about it on Twitter? Living our day to day lives like nothing has happened?

Two weeks ago I went to a protest at a detention center, and was lucky enough to see some of the activists who were willing to be arrested there days before. That is the example we must follow. Only by preventing the machine from operating, as Mario Savio famously said, will anything change.

That actually happened, not so long ago. The Trump administration's so-called "Muslim Ban" was met with massive protests at airports that directly challenged this administration, and forced it to back down. Nothing did more to undercut the new Trump administration than the first Women's March, which immediately blew apart media narratives of Trump's popularity.

A lot of that energy got put into the 2018 election. While that was successful in ending the Republican stranglehold on power, it has accomplished nothing else. In fact, it has created a deadly complacency, of people handing over the reins to those in power. This was the same mistake of the Obama years, and its being repeated again.

Remember, this is an unpopular president. He and his GOP allies are manipulating the system to maintain minority rule, but they are the minority. Stop being afraid. Stop expecting someone else to do the job. Now is the time to act, and time is running out.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

If I Were Commissioner of Baseball


The All Star Game in 1975, year of my birth, looks unrecognizable to what we have today. That is not me pining for the past, that's me admitting I am really old.

The All-Star game is this evening, which has me in the mood to revive a once annual tradition on my blog: saying what I would do if I were commissioner of baseball.

Discourses about "baseball is in trouble" are as old as the game itself, or at least as old as the 1919 Black Sox scandal. This season home runs have jumped to higher than Steroid Era levels and attendance is going down. Those are two of many things baseball ought to be addressing. Here's a list of what I would do.

Stop Juicing The Ball

We all know the ball is juiced, it's the worst kept secret since ... This juicing of the ball, meant to counteract the dominance of pitching in prior years, has combined with the Moneyball approach to lead to far too many walks, strikeouts, and homers. Home runs have lost their special nature, and the long at-bats are not interesting to watch and make the games longer. Making home runs harder to hit will help with that.

Limit Defensive Shifts

Shifting, which has skyrocketed in recent seasons, also encourages swinging for the fences. It also tends to make defensive plays in the field less interesting. Baseball is exciting to watch when there's players on base, contact being made, and fielders flashing the leather. Baseball should have a rule mandating that there are two infielders on either side of second base. The NBA came up with the shot clock, three second violation, and cracked down on zone defenses to open the game up and make it more exciting. MLB could learn from that.

Limit Teams To Eleven Pitchers

Just as defense should be friendlier to hitters, there should also be some restrictions on pitchers. Teams are overloading their rosters with pitchers and using them in increasingly specialized roles. This makes games longer, and also cuts down on offense. Lowering the number of pitchers a manager can use will help cut down on pitching changes.

Award Home Field Advantage In The World Series To The League With The Better Interleague Record

Bud Selig awarding the home field advantage based on a midsummer exhibition game was stupid. He also brought us interleague play, which has gone from a cool novelty to being completely blase. Even the intracity rivalry games have lost their luster. This is a shame, since having distinctive leagues sets baseball apart from other sports, and that sense of league competition can be fun. In that vein, let's make the interleague record determine World Series home field advantage. It will at least add some excitement and stakes to a late September Rays-Pirates series.

Allow More Teams To Move
Since the Expos left Montreal for Washington in 2005 no team in baseball has switched cities. This used to be much more commonplace. With attendance down, expansion is probably not a good idea, since dilutes talent. Instead, teams should be allowed to move to new cities, which will boost attendance and bring the game to new locations. The As (a franchise that had been in two cities before Oakland) and the Rays (who have barely been around for 20 years) I think would be helped especially by moving. They both play in crummy stadiums and could establish baseball in hip, expanding cities like Portland, Austin, or Charlotte, or bring it back to Montreal.

Force The Wilpons Out

I am not just saying this as a Mets fan. The fact that one of the teams in the biggest media market is run in an uncompetitive way by a gang of incompetents implicated in a Ponzi scheme is bad for baseball.

Maintain the DH in the AL and Pitchers Batting in the NL

As I said before, the distinctiveness of the leagues is something special about baseball. It helps make the All Star Game and the World Series much more intriguing than they would be otherwise. The leagues are less distinct these days, from the umpire's gear to style of play. Getting rid of the DH distinction would just end the last vestiges of something baseball has on other sports.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

On Seeing To Kill A Mockingbird On Broadway

Yesterday an old college friend who I hadn't seen in a decade was in NYC, and he managed to score us tickets for To Kill A Mockingbird, which has been an award-winning sensation. Seeing the play, it was easy to see why. The actors were uniformly amazing. Celia Keenan-Bolger won a well-earned Tony this year for her portrayal of Scout. Jeff Daniels truly inhabited the role of Atticus Finch, LaTanya Richardson Jackson stole the show as Calpurnia, and Gideon Glick's portrayal of Dill was a delight. Gbenga Akinngabe made Tom Robinson into a fully-fleshed out person and not just a victim or symbol. Dakin Matthews wrung belly laughs as the judge.

I was not aware of how the play had altered the source novel, because one of my most embarrassing literary sins is that I have never read it. It was not assigned in my schools growing up, and afterward I never read it because I thought of it as the kind of book that gets assigned in schools. That had the benefit of making the play's plot far more dramatic to me.

My main skepticism about the play was that it was adapted by Aaron Sorkin, a writer I consider the equivalent of a hotshot prog rock guitarist. He is technically gifted and capable of flourishes as impressive as the solos on a Yes album, but rarely does his work actually move me. I can appreciate an Emerson, Lake, and Palmer record, but a one chord John Lee Hooker song does much more to hit my heart. I will say that the play moved me more than say The West Wing (which I don't care for) or The Social Network (which I think is excellent.) That's probably down to the source material and the tragedy of the story.

I came away profoundly sad, and not just because an innocent man was murdered by the judicial system. I felt like the play highlighted why the opponents of the current regime keep failing. Atticus insists that his children try to understand others and be able to walk in their skin, even noxious racists like Bob Ewell. Later in the play Calpurnia takes him to task for this, telling him that by trying to respect certain people he is deeply disrespecting those harmed by the Ewells of the world.

I wondered whether Sorkin was telling an allegory, if Atticus was supposed to represent educated liberals who want to fight with reason and logic and who think that the MAGA hordes are just good people deep down who can somehow be reached. After all, he believes in the righteousness of the justice system, but that system still convicts Tom Robinson despite overwhelming exculpatory evidence. It helps advance the allegory that Ewell and the jurors are low class white people, to be contrasted with Atticus and the judge, who are more educated and enlightened. According to certain narratives, it is working class white people who are the main drive behind Trumpism, since he speaks to their fears and frustrations. Never mind that it's wealthy white people who are more likely to vote Republican, and who give their money in abundance to that party and its leader. The educated people sitting in the audience want to flatter themselves that they are in the shoes of Atticus.

Parts of the play reinforce the "understand, don't judge" narrative, while others take Atticus to task for it. Calpurnia calls the jurors murderers in what I thought was the most powerful moment of the play. Perhaps Sorkin is not endorsing either civility or a more radical stance, but simply commenting on the clash between those approaches in the present day.

At the end of the play, however, Tom Robinson is dead and Atticus has been voted out of office. The death of Ewell in the climax is cold comfort, because the oppressive system underlying the 1930s Deep South society we are dropped into hasn't changed a whit. There's a monologue by Scout that says that it was doing the right thing that mattered, even if the goal wasn't reached. That of course ignores the murder of Tom Robinson and is an expression of the whiteness of the Finch family, who can make the whole thing an abstraction.

So while the performance of the play and its stagecraft were superlative, I was left a little cold at the end. I feel like this play reinforces some of the bad habits of mind of its audience, who are mostly educated liberals. They think of the current crisis as a moral one, not as a matter of life or death for millions of their fellow Americans. They are willing to do some things to resist, to be sure, but are incapable of taking the more radical action the current times demand. After all, the Atticuses of the world will be able to go on living comfortably, while the Tom Robinsons are sent to the grave. Until the Atticuses wed their moral duty to a greater sense of urgency, nothing is going to change.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

July 4th Podcast Special


This week, for the first time ever in my long and not so storied blogging career, something I wrote went viral. So if anyone read that piece and decided to stick around, I'd ask you to give my podcast, Old Dad's Records, a try. This time around I decided to go with an Independence Day theme and focus on country music, the style of music most invested in nationalism. I start with Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA," a propaganda anthem birthed at the height of Reagan that owes its longevity to our Foreverwar. From there I pull a record from my pile of old records, and this one is a doozy. Porter Wagoner's The Cold Hard Facts of Life is full front to back with heartbreak, murder, drunkeness, and depression. Here we see the duality of country music, which often claims the mantle of "traditional values" while diving in the darker side of life. I end with a rave for Orville Peck, who has combined 80s indie British rock with country twang in a way I find very appealing. He's also gay and wears a mask, which puts him in with a long tradition of country music eccentrics, the same tradition Porter Wagoner belongs to.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

If The Democratic Primary Field Was a University History Department


The Democratic primary field is a mix of clashing personalities who like to hear themselves talk and where white men are overrepresented. I was immediately reminded of the dynamics in a university history department when I watched this week's debates. With that in mind, here is the Democratic primary field (or at least most of it) as a history department.

Joe Biden is the old professor still teaching off of notes he typed up in 1975 and who gets handsy at the holiday party after one too many scotch and sodas. His colleagues have been privately asking themselves for years why he hasn't retired yet.

Bernie Sanders is the old Marxist scholar who doesn't show up to all of the faculty meetings, but when he does he's salty and still holds grudges established in 1983. While most of his colleagues are ambivalent to him, the grad students and adjuncts like him because he's one of the few tenured people to actually bring their concerns to the faculty.

Kamala Harris is the hotshot rising associate professor known for showing up to job talks and destroying weak candidates with withering questions. She also suddenly became a transnational historian once that became a popular topic and abandoned her dissertation on diplomatic history.

Elizabeth Warren is the established full professor who is still putting out highly regarded research while having a high reputation as a teacher. She also has managed to take Professor Sanders' side in faculty meeting disputes without alienating her colleagues.

Beto O'Rourke is the young, run of the mill assistant professor who thinks he is above his current department, and tries and fails every year to land a job at a more prestigious university.

Tim Ryan thinks his obsession with grade inflation is the reason that his class enrollments are low, not the fact that he is an insufferable ass who lacks empathy for his students.

Amy Klobuchar is the professor who has racked up a lot of publications but has never mentored a graduate student on through their dissertation, despite taking on several of them in their first year at the school. When asked about this her former advisees, who always take on a different advisor or drop out, go silent. Junior colleagues pray that she's not on their tenure committee.

When Tulsi Gabbard comes up in conversation her colleagues sigh and point fingers over who was responsible for hiring her.

Pete Buttigieg is the Type A personality assistant professor who got hired while he was still ABD at an Ivy League university. He was the golden child of his well-known advisor, but he mysteriously hasn't published anything yet.

Julian Castro is the new hire that nobody talked about when he arrived but had the fattest binders when he applied for tenure.

Cory Booker is the professor who is constantly talking about himself. This draws a core group of impressionable students who don't understand why the other professors roll their eyes when they express their admiration for him.

Marianne Williamson is the professor who burns incense in her office and invites grad students over to her home to try edibles.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Thoughts on Metzl's Dying of Whiteness

I just finished Jonathan Metzl's Dying of Whiteness, a book I had been excited about from the time of its release. In case you don't know, he is a psychiatrist who uses case studies in Tennessee, Kansas, and Missouri to show how Republican policies in those states have severely damaged the health and well-being of the people who there. Furthermore, he connects the political popularity of those policies among the very people they harm to white identity formation of the people who vote for them. According to Metzl, these people vote for gun proliferation, limiting Medicaid, and defunding public schools do so because they want to defend the "castle" of whiteness by "protecting" themselves against others and making sure those others are not allowed to share resources with them.

I found it to be very persuasive, and not just because this is something I have observed in my own personal life. Metzl incorporates both quantitative and qualitative data and approaches both with sophistication and sensitivity.

While the end of the book offers some optimism in the form of the defeat of Kris Kobach in Kansas and that state's rejection of educational austerity, I came away from it horribly depressed. Metzl lays out a prescription for a politics that can overcome white backlash, but I am more and more convinced that the future will only get worse.

Just take yesterday's Supreme Court decision on gerrymandering. With this ruling states that already cut up districts to amplify the votes of white reactionaries in the suburbs and small towns will act with greater impunity. This will make it even easier for backlash politicians to get by while only appealing to their base. You can add this to voter suppression, the filibuster, the reactionaries dominating the courts, and the structure of the Senate. And on top of all this political structure you have Fox News and Facebook constituting the most effective propaganda tools this country has ever seen. The only way forward is a mass movement willing to fundamentally transform the system. Any look at the current situation -and especially the Democratic Party- tells us that's not happening anytime soon.

Metzl's book can't touch on everything, so I would to add a couple of wrinkles to his analysis that I think both confirm his thesis but also undercut optimism for the future. I think there needs to be more about religion in his analysis, and I do not mean how certain modes of religion directly reinforce whiteness. I am thinking more about what I would call a religious frame of mind. Certain forms of Christianity, especially evangelicalism and conservative Catholicism, encourage their adherents to take a dogmatic, all or nothing approach to their faith. If any one thing the believe is wrong, then it is all a lie, so every attempt to question even the most absurd aspects of their faith must be fiercely opposed. In fact, it's the most absurd provisions, like saying the earth is 6000 years old, that must be the most fervently defended because they are the ones most assaulted.

This helps explain some of the respondents in Metzl's focus groups. For instance, those who lost close family members to gun suicide refused to believe that easy access to guns was a contributing factor. In order for their worldview to hold together, guns could never be questioned. The same goes for those in Tennessee who were suffering horrible health ailments and had limited care options but still decried Obamacare. If they had to admit that they were wrong about their need for health care, then in their minds their entire way of understanding the world was false. That religious mindset makes changing someone's mind incredibly difficult to do.

One of the most compelling things about Dying of Whiteness is Metzl's use of the "castle" metaphor. A lot of gun proliferation is justified by the "castle doctrine" that a person's home is their fortress, meaning they can do what they want there (leave loaded guns unlocked) and defend it how they please (by shooting suspected intruders.) The white people Metzl talks to are constantly afraid that "those people" will breach their homes or the more metaphorical castle of whiteness.

He could have talked even more about how white communities writ large are literal fortresses built with whites only home loans and policed in ways to keep people of color out to this day. While the country at large is becoming less white, many rural, small town, and suburban communities are still overwhelmingly white today. Those suburbs were constructed in an explicitly exclusionary fashion, and many of those towns were "sundown towns" a century ago. In these places the locals fight tooth and nail to resist school consolidation, affordable housing, and anything else that might mean sharing space and resources with black and brown people. That sense of living in a fortress is written in the DNA of the very places most white people in America live and breathe. It is hardly a wonder that a majority of white people voted for Trump.

I guess this is a way of saying that Metzl's thesis is so clearly true that you could easily list far more examples of the salience of whiteness to America's current political mess. Sadly I think whiteness will go on killing, at the border, at the hands of the police, and in the homes of the very white people voting to destroy their own health, education, and safety to maintain their relative position.